Youth, families, outback, the West

August 01, 1999|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

The spirit of Holden Caulfield is alive and living in northeastern Illinois, where Michael Hornburg's second novel, "Downers Grove" (Morrow, 256 pages, $23), unfolds. Hornburg's heroine, 17-year-old Chrissie Swanson, is the picture of Salinger-style disaffected youth, chafing at the limitations of her dead-end hometown and irked by her drifting family.

Chrissie's dad left years ago, gunning his pale blue Pontiac over the shards of his totaled marriage. Her lonely Mom is hoping for salvation in the arms of a creepy Christian used-car dealer, while her brother has retreated into "the warm loving arms of heroin."

High-school graduation is only a few weeks away, and Chrissie's most likely job prospects are of the fast-food or convenience-store variety. "My greatest fear," she confesses, "is to be known as the girl with the purple hair that works at Barnes & Noble."

Hornburg's plot is thin, featuring Chrissie's doomed pursuit of an irresistibly aloof young mechanic and her escape from a carload of drunken football jocks. But the novel has several redeeming virtues, first in Chrissie's voice, which effectively combines world-weary teen-age impertinence with eloquent vulnerability, and second in its supersaturated atmosphere.

Like Hornburg's first novel, a look at Portland's grunge music scene called "Bongwater," "Downers Grove" displays a sharpshooter's eye for illuminating details. From a Parents without Partners potluck dinner in a dingy local church ("four different Jell-Os, and deviled eggs from here to Naperville") to a nearby petroleum fire which becomes a traffic-snarled sightseeing attraction, this book burns with an unsettling incandescence. By finding beauty in unlikely places -- church basements, malls, speedways, Dairy Queen -- it turns the hopeless into the romantic.

"Capture the Flag" (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $23), Rebecca Chace's first novel, treats the perils of adolescence with a dogged earnestness. Set in New York in the mid-'70s, the book is a catalog of domestic crises, including divorce and the difficulties of "blended" families, mental illness, teen-age drug use, lesbian romance, and, finally, sex between two 15-year-old step-siblings that results in pregnancy.

Chace's story, about the terrible toll that irresponsible parents exact from children forced to grow up too fast, has plenty of harsh emotional honesty. But it has almost no humor, and suffers from a plodding prose style.

It's a pity that "Capture the Flag" lacks the quirky exuberance of the author's previous book, "Chautauqua Summer," a delightful memoir about her career as a trapeze artist with the vaudeville troupe known as the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

From Australia comes yet another novel about a daughter and her deadbeat dad, Nikki Gemmell's "Alice Springs" (Viking, 256 pages, $22.95). Snip Freeman is a young artist from Sydney who is repeatedly drawn to an aboriginal community outside the remote town of Alice Springs, where her father fled when she was a little girl. On her latest visit she's forced to choose between a burgeoning love affair with a cute archeologist and a trip with her father, who has unwittingly insulted the local aborigines and needs a quick getaway. She elects to go with her father, with dire consequences.

What Australian novel worth its salt does not include an automotive failure in the bush, thousands of miles from civilization with dwindling food and water? Gemmell's version is a humdinger, chronicling this duo's tribulations after a rock shatters the fuel tank of Snip's truck.

Ten days of desert heat and dust bring dehydration, hallucination and the airing of some shocking family secrets. Gemmell tells her story in a jazzy, nonlinear, chopped-to-fragments series of short chapters, a narrative style as compelling and exotic as the novel's landscape.

If the Golden Girls ate fried green tomatoes, they'd be characters in Viqui Litman's novel, "The Ladies Farm" (Crown, 256 pages, $23). Set in a small town near Fort Worth, Texas, the plot revolves around four women of a certain age who are fighting to keep their bed and breakfast, the Ladies Farm, from being sold out from under them. What the inn lacks in punctuation (where is that apostrophe, anyway?) it makes up for in southern hospitality and the good-humored resourcefulness of the women who run the place.

The ladies manage to rise above their personal rivalries -- a couple of them, it seems, had secret long-ago affairs with one of the foursome's husbands, now dead -- and put up a spirited fight against the land grab. Litman's novel is not quite as rollicking as it ought to be, devoting too much attention to the particulars of Texas real estate. But its characters are more complex than one might imagine, and their astringent, grown-up humor is refreshing.

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